Atlanta's 18th: A classic finishing hole for PGA

Vijay Singh, of Fiji, makes his way to the 18th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

Vijay Singh, of Fiji, makes his way to the 18th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Just off the 18th fairway at Atlanta Athletic Club, along a small slope and shaded by a tree, there's a bronze plaque commemorating the spot where Jerry Pate hit his famous 5-iron to clinch an improbable win in the 1976 U.S. Open.

Chances are, there will be another memorable shot Sunday on the final hole of the Highlands Course.

Perhaps it will be something glorious, akin to Pate's brilliant play more than three decades ago. Or perhaps this will be the place where someone throws away the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday.

"This last hole," said 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem, shaking his head as he stood behind the 18th green, "you're going to see some train wrecks here."

This club north of Atlanta has hosted three previous majors championships, and only once — the 1981 PGA Championship that Larry Nelson won by a comfortable four strokes — has it not come down to the 72nd hole.

The beauty of the 18th is there's no automatic way to play it. At 507 yards, it's the second-longest par-4 on the course, a dogleg that bends gently to the left. The shortest way to the flag, of course, is to keep it on the left side of the fairway — but that means flirting with a pond that runs right alongside it. Keep the ball to the right and run the risk of missing the fairway, leaving a tough shot out of the rough or from a bunker that must clear the pond, which widens out to protect the front of the green.

"It's a great hole," Steve Stricker said Monday, looking back at the 18th from his perch on a temporary bridge that carries players from the green to the clubhouse. "You've got to decide if you're going to challenge the water, of whether you're going to leave yourself with a little longer shot."

At the '76 Open, Pate went for broke after staying away from the water with his tee shot.

Clinging to a one-shot lead, he pushed his drive into the rough right of the green. No problem. With the bravado of a 22-year-old playing his first major as a professional, Pate didn't even consider laying up short of the water from 194 yards. Instead, he pulled out a 5-iron and struck a soaring shot that plopped down 2 feet from the flag.

Pate rolled in the birdie putt to win what would be the only major title of his career. The club installed a plaque on the site of his famous shot. The memory is so lasting that the PGA of America invited him to play in the year's final major at age 57 — even though it wasn't even their tournament.

"It was a pretty historical event, being 22 and hitting a 5-iron to 2 feet on the last hole," Pate said. "I would say it's a historical event for the club. I think that was the reason."

David Toms took a different approach at the 2001 PGA Championship.

He, too, was leading by a stroke when he missed the fairway to the right, leaving a 209-yard shot over the water. Instead of gambling, Toms laid up in the fairway, leaving the ball short of the water and 88 yards from the flag. He knocked a wedge within 12 feet of the cup and rolled in the par putt to preserve his margin over Phil Mickelson.

"I might still be out there playing that hole if I had gone for the green," Toms said afterward. "There were too many bad things that could happen."

While both Pate and Toms are remembered for their second shots at No. 18, Stricker said the decision off the tee is most crucial. During a practice round, he went for the green with a driver and a 5-iron, but he also dropped a ball farther back in the fairway, simulating where he might hit his 3-wood. He managed to get on from there with a utility club.

"A lot of it depends on how you're playing when you get to the tee," Stricker said. "But no matter what, it definitely takes two good shots to get there."

Probably just best to look at the hole as a par 5.

"It's tough to make a 4," Stricker said. "If you make a 4, it's almost like you're stealing a shot on the field."

All of which could lead to another dramatic finish, especially when put back-to-back with another of the most memorable holes on the Highlands Course: the par-3 17th, a 207-yarder over the water with bunkers packed in behind the green.

"The par 3s stick out because there's water on all of them," Beem said. "There's a lot more water out here than I expected."

Right to the very last hole. Just ask Nick Faldo, who remembers finding all sorts of trouble the last time he played the 18th in Atlanta. He's thankful to be in the broadcast booth for this PGA Championship.

"I hit it in the bunker on the right," Faldo recalled. "I tried to hit it out of the bunker and I put it in the water. I took a 7 the last time I played that thing. I'm not talking about the 18th, OK?"

He was just kidding around, but there was a seriousness in his voice.

"If anybody can get down on 18," Faldo said, "I'll tip my hat to them."

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